Jane Stuart – Writer

Writing about real life Up North: football, ale, food and mental health – with a good dash of humour.

Welcome to AFC Blackpool (& Blackpool v Wigan Athletic)

Lee and I have enjoyed our non-league travels around the North West this last couple of months. Blackpool being placed into Tier 3 lockdown was certainly not going to stand in our way, so we took two opportunities to head down to Jepson Way to watch AFC Blackpool.

AFC Blackpool v Cleator Moor Celtic

Oh the weather tonight! Storm Aidan was in town and I knew I needed to dig out my hardiest winter togs for this match. The fleece-lined boots came out of archive (they were filed away on the first day of Lockdown 1); I was already wearing a t-shirt, jumper and cardigan, to which I added my Blackpool FC body warmer (nay gilet) and winter coat. Add to that my thick woollen mittens and woolly hat (which served me well at Bristol Rovers during Storm Dennis) and I thought I was sufficiently protected against any kind of weather.

Dear reader, I was wrong. Jepson Way has its own microclimate and it’s harsh. Plus I was out of practice and had forgotten some vital pieces of kit: scarf (because flimsy snoods neither stay up nor keep you warm) and thermal waterproof trousers (my thighs got very cold). Lesson well and truly learned.

On arrival, Lee set about his filming. Normally, I would take a stroll round the ground at this point, observing its quirks, reviewing the toilets, taking photos, maybe having a chat with the groundsman or the lady in the refreshment kiosk. But, dear reader, we aren’t in the Northern Premier League any more. The floodlights weren’t even switched on, so I was scared to enter the ground. The players were beginning to congregate in the clubhouse, which had that, er, dressing room smell (and banter), so I chose to wait outside in the car park, where I could breathe a little better – and admire their new signage.

Eventually, the floodlights came on and I entered the ground to commence my exploration. I headed straight to ‘my’ seat. This was where I sat when we came here to film The Mechs’ first training session because we just wanted to be in a football ground again.

Not all the floodlights were on but I could see enough to feel comfortable. I simply sat for a while. My seat actually isn’t a seat at all. You know those seats without backs they have at Bristol City where, when you lean back (because you automatically DO), you either lose your balance or end up in someone’s lap? The back row of seats is a row of those. However these seats don’t need backs because the clubhouse is behind, so you can lean on that. There is a seat missing on the back row, leaving the wooden bench exposed. That little gap is where I sit. I just gravitate towards it. Besides, the soft wood is comfier than the plastic seats. I’ve mentioned before (at Colne, I think) that wooden stands are easier on the feet than concrete. In these exposed grounds in inclement weather, you have to take your comforts where you can get them. And this wooden bench is my nu nu. I would actually be upset if they replaced the seat.

Now it was time for my circuit of the ground. I was going to set off anti-clockwise tonight but noticed a man heading in that direction and wanted to keep my distance from people as far as possible, so I started off in a clockwise direction. I headed towards the turnstile, exchanging pleasantries with the gateman before turning behind the goal. There is an impressive terrace here which is well-sheltered from the elements – and with a low roof that I imagine is good for acoustics. This is the home of the ‘Tin Hut Brigade’, the AFC Blackpool fans group, so I’m guessing the end is affectionately known as the ‘tin hut’. They have a drummer and I was looking forward to hearing how much noise this end could generate.

Meanwhile I continued my circuit of the ground. The side opposite the clubhouse had a covered terrace, too. Here I passed the man who was walking round the ground clockwise.

‘I like your brolly.’

‘Ooh thanks. I usually have it lit up in the colour of the club I’m visiting but I can’t seem to get it to stay tangerine tonight.’

Indeed my brolly was in full-on disco mode, changing colour for fun. I really must figure out how to control it properly. Here’s a link to my disco brolly if you’d like to see it. It’s basically a light sabre, which is why I begged for it for Christmas last year. It also has a torch on the end, which is proving most useful when exiting non league grounds in the dark.

I was excited as ever to observe the corner flag – flapping wildly in the wind – which was tangerine and sported the club badge. Corner flags aren’t something I’ve historically noticed at league grounds. Actually, that’s not strictly true. I make a point of NOT observing them because they make me angry. You may or may not know that winners of the FA Cup (such as Blackpool) are permitted to have triangular corner flags. When I found this out, I gleefully (perhaps slightly smugly) observed corner flags at every ground I went to, noticing most of them were NOT triangular, whereas ours were. It was a matter of pride. I can’t remember exactly what it was that made me so angry – either Blackpool changed to non-triangular corner flags or I visited a club who had triangular flags but hadn’t won the FA Cup – but it spoiled the whole flag-spotting experience for me. I am pleased to have rediscovered it through non league.

I needed my umbrella torch to safely navigate the rest of the ground. There was a deep, covered terrace behind the other goal, too. It is rare and welcome to see a non league ground with four covered ends. But bloody hell if the weather is like this every week, they need it! Much as I love standing out in the elements (I again refer you to Bristol Rovers away), this weather was just ridiculous and even I couldn’t stand this every week without some form of shelter.

Completing my circuit, I noted I hadn’t found a tea hut, so headed back into the clubhouse in search of sustenance.

Not without some difficulty, I located a food-serving hatch. I wasn’t really hungry after my tea, but you know I need to sample the food to review for you, dear reader. I promptly ordered chips and gravy and a Bovril because I was already getting cold and the game hadn’t even kicked off. I returned to my seat to settle in for the night.

I made it about halfway through the chips and gravy – more for warmth than anything else. I don’t think I have ever NOT been disappointed with chips at the football (or indeed anywhere that isn’t a chippy; and actually a lot of chippys, come to think of it. Do I even like chips?). I set them to one side and wrapped my hands round my Bovril.

I became aware of a man eyeing me curiously.

‘I thought it was you. I recognised the chips and gravy. Here – I’ve brought you these. Now don’t go letting Lee have any – these are all for you.’

By way of explanation, on our livestream the previous Saturday, I had been astounded to discover that Lee had wiped out our entire supply of Midget Gems. Sweets are fast becoming an important coping mechanism during lockdown here at LCTV Towers. My new friend here explained that he was a Blackpool fan and watches our live watchalongs of Blackpool matches instead of watching the matches on iFollow (which he has free access to, as a season ticket holder). He took a seat within chatting distance and we exchanged stories of our respective adventures watching Blackpool over the years and we discovered we had a number of mutual friends. How wonderful that two people who have never met can be brought together by football in this way.

The game was a good un despite the conditions – and AFC Blackpool won 3-1 (the third goal was a cracker too!). I was very cold by the end of the match (despite a second Bovril, which was SO thick and salty…but so warm and comforting). I knew Lee would be a while yet conducting his post-match interviews, so I opened the Hive app on my phone and switched the heating on (WITCHCRAFT!) so the house would be nice and toasty when we got home (NB if you would like £30 off Hive, follow this link and enter my name at the checkout).

Here’s Lee’s video of the night, featuring the best non-league dog footage of the season so far (it makes me laugh every time).

Blackpool v Wigan Athletic

It was back to iFollow to watch Blackpool the following Tuesday. It’s not the same of course but it is my team, which is the (only) reason we continue to watch. It has been hard lately but we seem to be happening across a little run of form.

Indeed, tonight’s match was enjoyable from start to finish. We not only won (1-0, Kaikai) but also kept 11 men on the pitch again (and didn’t score an own goal). We enjoyed the football, too. 4-4-2 seems to suit these players much better and we are actually looking dangerous in the box now; our deliveries are better and players are running into the box with the ball, too, instead of dancing around outside the box like they were before. This is much, much better from Blackpool. That’s two wins on the bounce now – and three in four.

I had some midget gems before this livestream so am a little hyper and also smiling a lot more. This seems a good tactic, so I’ll try and make that a regular pre-match thing.

AFC Blackpool v Daisy Hill

It was back to Jepson Way the following night. The Mechs (because formerly Blackpool Mechanics) play their home midweekers on a Wednesday night, which means they don’t (usually) clash with Blackpool midweekers (or Squires Gate, who play across the road). This is great because it means we should be able to see more of them.

That said, as we entered Lockdown 2 (the sequel), football from Step 3 downwards was to cease as from tomorrow (Thursday) for at least a month. This was therefore our last opportunity to watch live football for some time, so of course we had to take it. Who knows when we will be able to watch live football again. Will clubs realistically be able to complete the league season, with the winter weather kicking in if and when fixtures do resume, not to mention COVID putting paid to further fixtures? With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps some sort of War Cup type competition would have been more appropriate for these strange times, enabling competitive football but without the pressure of having to complete a lengthy league campaign? These are exceptional times. Indeed poor old Isle of Man are already having to take a year out of the North West Counties League in their debut season because of travel restrictions. This isn’t normal and we must find a way to adapt.

Mercifully, the weather was kind tonight. Lee was livid that this was perfect filming weather, as opposed to our previous visit, when he was freezing out in the elements and missed a goal because it came at the moment his umbrella was taken by a vicious gust of wind. Tonight there was to be no video, nor was I conducting extensive undercover research for a blog. Tonight we were going to simply go to a match and watch it together – something we had never done, because one of us is usually filming (or we are watching at home which, frankly, isn’t the same).

That didn’t happen, of course, as Lee disappeared off at half time to chat to the cameraman (at a safe distance, of course) and I spent the second half collecting interesting snippets of conversation and speech patterns for my Creative Writing course. (As an aside, Blackpool manager Neil Critchley is a great subject here, with his little speech impediment). I’m currently working on writing dialogue (and stage directions) for stage plays, so have my ears well and truly tuned in at the moment.

Lee was particularly taken with the perimeter wall surrounding the pitch, which was very sturdy (and needs to be, given the weather experienced here last time) so I took a photo of it to share with you.

The Mechs won 3-1 again and Lee and I remain unbeaten at every home ground we have visited this season (Trafford, Chase, Glossop, Colne, Squires Gate and AFC Blackpool).

So that’s it for live football for the foreseeable – but all is not lost! Next up we have the FA Cup – and a (virtual) trip to explore a new town and a new non league ground: Eastbourne Borough.

#UTMP #UpTheMechs #LetFansIn

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